With a new general manager and coach Alain Vigneault entering his third season, the Rangers are reloading. The mission is the same: A run at the elusive Stanley Cup, which has been tantalizingly close for the past two springs.
Everyone from the front office to the core of returning players wants to reverse their playoff fortunes, which remind one of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who endlessly pushes an immense boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down.
"You never really forget it," said captain Ryan McDonagh, referring to the painful losses in the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 in Los Angeles and missing a return to the Final in a home loss in Game 7 against Tampa Bay last season. "It's what keeps you motivated, keeps you driven to be better every day. But it's not like we're talking about it, what we could've done differently."
Led by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the backbone of the franchise, the peak awaits, and the trail begins on Wednesday, in Chicago, the home of the defending Cup champions.
"I've felt pretty good," said Lundqvist, who has been sharp, stopping 83 of 89 shots in three preseason appearances. "Every period is a step in the right direction; I'm confident that it'll be enough for me to be ready."
Seventeen Rangers return from last season: Lundqvist, McDonagh and five regular defensemen, and 10 of 12 forwards, including five on the top two lines.
Gone via free agency, trades or retirement are future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, speedster Carl Hagelin, backup goaltender Cam Talbot, whose performance when an injured Lundqvist missed 25 games was critical to collecting a league-best 113 points, and dependable blueliner Matt Hunwick.
There are a half-dozen new faces: Rookie center Oscar Lindberg, a promising playmaker, rugged defenseman Dylan McIlrath, penciled in as a seventh defenseman, left wing Viktor Stalberg, center Jarret Stoll, right wing Emerson Etem and goaltender Antti Raanta. Waiting in AHL Hartford is defenseman Brady Skjei, 21, the 2012 first-round pick whose defensive ability and skating skills may warrant a midseason call-up.
Vigneault sees similarities to last October. "We had lost so many key players from my first year, we were all hoping those kids would be able to step in and that hope became reality," he said Saturday. "We're hoping the guys we've added, the guys we're giving bigger roles, will be able to do it for us."
The talented first line, with Derick Brassard between Rick Nash (42 goals) and Mats Zuccarello (back in form after a skull fracture last April), remains intact. Derek Stepan centers the second line, with emerging power forward Chris Kreider on the left and Kevin Hayes on the right. "A guy like Chris can become a force in this league, him and Step have real chemistry," Vigneault said, "and we'll give Kevin [who played center last season] a chance on that line. You have size, speed and good hockey sense."
There's been re-engineering of the third and fourth lines, with Lindberg between Stalberg and J.T. Miller, and Stoll centering Dominic Moore on the left side and Jesper Fast on the right to start the campaign. Etem and Tanner Glass are the extra forwards for now.
Following the footsteps of Glen Sather, who maintains his position as team president, new general manager Jeff Gorton is calling the shots.
Gorton, with the club for eight years, curated this roster and will continue to adjust. "I'm talking to people every day, trying to figure out scenarios, who might be available, what we might do," he said Friday. "We haven't lost any games that matter yet," Gorton said with a grin. "So it's not that hard right now."